I is for Improvement: THE BOOKSHELF MUSE

Letter IAs a self-taught writer, I’ve stumbled around plenty in my journey to elevate my writing skills past college-level English class. I’ve joined writing groups and subjected myself to ruthless critique, attended a writing workshop weekend in the back hills of Virginia, and confess to relying heavily on the Internet. Along the pathway, I discovered an amazing site called THE BOOKSHELF MUSE. In its original incarnation it had lists of synonyms for all kinds of categories of words: colors, emotions, body parts, weather, and I consulted it often when stumped for a new adjective or way to express an emotion.

My editor is constantly on me to change things up, as all good editors are inclined to do, ruthlessly citing my overuse of certain words. I’ve moved past the rookie mistakes of using suddenly and maybe too often and clipped numerous instances of that and was. In my latest project, an erotic romance, he told me that if I wrote “he pulled her into his arms/chest” one more time he was going to scream, and even though he lives on the opposite coast, I’d hear him!

It’s tough to keep coming up with different ways of describing the same things: a frown, a sigh, a shrug, hair/eye color, or a myriad of other traits and emotions. And so I often rely on my buddies, Angela and Becca, at the Bookshelf Muse to hone my verbal skills. Only…they left me! Well, not really, they’re now called Writers Helping Writers and not only do they blog, offering helpful tips to the writing community, they’ve published their lists in three volumes in the form of

                                                               THE POSITIVE TRAIT THESAURUS
                                                               THE NEGATIVE TRAIT THESAURUS
                                                               THE EMOTION THESAURUS

I don’t buy many books any more, mostly reading on-line or with my eReader, but I broke down and bought these. It saves a lot of effort juggling windows on your computer as they’re always at my elbow whenever I need them.

Here’s a listing from the table of contents for each. Additionally, each trait/emotion has it’s own chapter and I’ve outlined a sample below.


  • The Ultimate Hook: Characters Worth Rooting For
  • Needs and Morals
  • How Positive Traits Develop
  • How to Build Characters from the Ground Up
  • How to Show Your Character’s Attributes
  • ONE HUNDRED traits, like: bold, disciplined, flamboyant, obedient, spunky…
  • The Appendix: Character Profile Questionnaire, Character Attribute Tool, Category Breakdown Target Tool


  • Flawed and Human: Characters Who Appeal
  • What is a flaw?
  • The Role of Flaws in the Character Arc
  • The Role of Flaws within Relationships: Creating friction
  • Villains and Their Flaws
  • How to Show Your Character’s Flaws
  • The Difficulties of Crafting Flawed Characters
  • ONE HUNDRED traits, like: cocky, evil, flaky, foolish, humorless, macho…
  • The Appendix: Needs and Lies List, Reverse Backstory Tool and Character Pyramid tool.

THE EMOTION THESAURUSthe-emotion-thesaurus

  • Avoiding the Common Problems when Writing the Nonverbal Emotion.
  • How to use this thesaurus
  • Identifying the root emotion
  • Utilizing the setting
  • Visceral reactions as physical indicators.
  • A chapter each for 75 different emotions

Sample Chapter for the emotion of 


Definition: to be afraid of, to expect threat or danger

Physical signals: Face turning ashen, hair lifting on the nape or arms, body odor, cold sweats, clammy hands, trembling lips and chin, tendons standing out on the neck, a visible pulse…

Internal sensations: an inability to speak, shakiness in the limbs, holding back a scream or cry, heartbeat racing, nearly exploding, dizziness, weakness in legs and knees…

Mental Reactions: wanting to flee or hide, sensation of things moving too quickly to process, images of what-could-be-flashing through the mind, flawed reasoning…

Cues of Acute or Long-Term Fear: uncontrollable trembling, fainting, insomnia, heart giving out, panic attacks, phobias, exhaustion, depression, substance abuse…

Cues of Suppressed Fear: keeping silent, denying fear through diversion or topic change, turning away from the cause of fear, attempting to keep one’s voice light, a watery smile that’s forced into place, false bravado…

I don’t receive any perks for recommending these books, so this comes from my heart and endless hours spent trying to come up with just the right word or phrase. They force me to look at things from a different viewpoint, to expand my vocabulary and to avoid grabbing the first idea that comes to mind. Visit their site and take a look for yourself and if you feel inclined to purchase, it will only cost about fifteen bucks for all three volumes. You can also download them, but this is one of those times when having the book in your hands can be a tremendous advantage.

Don’t miss out on their blog and their resources. You’ll never run out of ideas with these tools in your box!

Up Next:  Jenn with J for Jewish Food and Inspiration





Author: Caryn McGill

Caryn is a former high school science teacher, school district administrator and adjunct college professor.

10 thoughts on “I is for Improvement: THE BOOKSHELF MUSE”

  1. Angela Ackerman’s work and site are excellent resources, and have been recommended and cited to me by numerous scribes, by the way. Super stuff.

    One question: Does anyone feel it’s cheating to use such a resource while writing? I use Word’s Thesaurus more often than I’d like. I realise that I’ll ultimately choose a word from the list that I would’ve thought of a couple of minutes later. But people have told me that writing stoned, drunk, or whatever else is like an athlete using steroids. As I am a lover of caffeine, this gives me pause too. Is this any different? Is there any ethical dilemma? Did Swift or Twain or Harriet Beecher Stowe have access to these resources? Anyone have any thoughts?

    Just putting that out there. Thanks for the recommendations, Jennifer. Your site’s super.


    1. Cheating? I hadn’t thought of it that way. When tackling any project I always avail myself of the best tools I can find. I guess I think of it as just forcing myself out of speech patterns that I’m comfortable with and looking at things differently. The words and phrases I find often trigger new images or memories that I can use in my writing.

  2. Wow! What an awesome review of our books and our site. It never gets old, hearing that the work Angela and I do is helping other writers. Thanks so much for including us in the A to Z challenge, and for spreading the word about Writers Helping Writers!

  3. What a wonderful review–I am so happy that you found your way to these books and our site, and get the help you need from them. Becca and I love helping writers however we can, and we really wanted to create resources that went a step further than teaching how to do something, ones that would also aid with that critical brainstorming period we need to actually create unique, compelling characters who have strong emotional pull.

    Thanks so much for featuring our books in you’re A to Z, and good luck with the Challenge! I love seeing all the interesting topics people come up with each year. 🙂


  4. *sigh* And because I’m using Alex’s computer, I commented with her name. 😛 Oh well, the comment applies for both of us since we live together anyway.

  5. I have The Emotions Thesaurus, but I think I’ll have to add the other two, as well.

    I also recommend The Describer’s Dictionary. I use it much more than the Emotions Thesaurus, as it has much more in it. The Chicago Manual of Style also has a great word resource in one of its indexes. I recommend it as well.

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